This short story was first published in The Sketch Issue 1579 (2 May 1923) as part of the lengthy series of Poirot stories that appeared in that paper weekly from 1923-24. In 1924 it was one of eleven stories in the series collected as Poirot Investigates.
The story begins with the fiancée of Philip Ridgeway, an employee of the London and Scottish Bank, entreating Poirot to clear her lover’s name after the eponymous bonds in Ridgeway’s protection are stolen en route to New York. The solution is an ingenious one – blindingly obvious once revealed, it is kept a surprise by some of Christie’s trademark sleight of hand.
As ever, Hastings sets the tone with a fatuous comment on a story in the newspaper: ‘What a number of bond robberies there have been lately!’ The proceeding infodump is rather embarrassing. No one talks like this and the opening paragraphs are presumably a necessity foisted on Christie by the constrained space of the short story form. Unusually, Poirot then joins in himself, although his enthusiastic portrait of the great ships from which the bonds have been stolen do at least add a bit of period glamour, reminding modern readers that this is the age of the great liners. This reminded me of the tale’s publishing context – I expect this would have sat well with the society news and features about recent scandal and the latest technological luxuries, which were the staple ingredients in a typical issue of The Sketch. This, as much as anything else, is responsible for Poirot’s growing celebrity status as detective to the rich and famous – precisely the kind of detective who would feature in a society paper like The Sketch, which was essentially the Hello! magazine of its day.
As well as the increasing consolidation of Poirot’s celebrity status (Ridgeway has heard of Poirot), further character development is also evident. After Hastings’s recent disgruntled realisation (in ‘The Adventure of the “Western Star”’) that he is merely the foil for his vastly more intelligent friend, Poirot has become increasingly aware of Hastings’s exasperation – and although he is hardly contrite, his arrogance captures perfectly the mix of endearing eccentricity and shocking vanity that characterise Poirot’s personality: ‘I observe that there are times when you almost detest me! Alas, I suffer the penalties of greatness!’ Part of the reason we as readers are able to accept this insufferable arrogance is the playful way in which the narration presents it. An example is the amusing moment when Miss Esmèe Farquhar (Ridgeway’s fiancée) is unexpectedly announced – Poirot reacts by ‘diving under a table to retrieve a stray crumb’, which he places ‘carefully in the waste paper basket’. The droll contrast between Poirot’s panicked ‘dive’ and his careful depositing of a single crumb in the waste paper basket – between ostentatious elegance and sudden ungainly lunges – endearingly punctures Poirot’s dandyish demeanour. I wonder if deflating his friend’s vanity through such descriptions is a coping mechanism for Hastings? Incidentally, the coincidence of Miss Farquhar coming to see Poirot about precisely the thing they’ve just been reading about is a bit of a stretch, but by this point the story has manufactured enough plaisir (in Roland Barthes’s sense of the pleasure inherent in a text’s ability to immerse the reader in a text by assuring him/her that it’s playing completely to the expected generic rules) that we’re happy to go with it!
The deft economy of Christie’s style is also again in evidence, most notably the detail that Ridgeway’s hair has become prematurely gray from the stress of his situation. Later, the general managers of the bank are described as having ‘grown grey in the service of the Bank’. Unlike the clumsy introduction to the plot that characterise the story’s opening infodump, this is a very telling detail, economically and subtly conveying the idea that Ridgeway’s loss of the bonds acts as a sort of rite of passage – from now on he will be more cautious, less reckless. Now older in his demeanour and outlook than befits a man of his years, his appearance nevertheless reflects the demeanour and outlook of a man totally committed to his profession. Grey hair is the badge of such a man and the irony is that Ridgeway’s apparent irresponsibility has actually physically transformed him into a consummate banker.
I also enjoyed the lovely overturning of Sherlock Holmes’s famous dictum about eliminating the impossible: ‘You may know, Hastings, I do not. I take the view that, since it seemed incredible, it was incredible.’ And incredible it certainly is – yet somehow Christie succeeds in duping everyone as to exactly how incredible the apparent ‘facts’ of the case actually are. As such, the solution (and the sleight of hand with which it is concealed) is seriously clever: The bonds ‘reappear in New York half an hour after the Olympia gets in, and according to one man, whom nobody listens to, actually before she gets in.’ (‘nobody’ includes the reader here – certainly I’d assumed this to be an obvious red herring, and I’d read the story before!)
Basically then, here’s another clever puzzle, which could easily have made a satisfying full-length novel. My only gripe is that you really do have to wonder how the real culprit (I won’t give it away) ever thought they were going to get away with it…